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Bashar al-Asad interview in as-Safir

March 27, 2009

Earlier this week as-Safir newspaper published an interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.  Below I have translated  excerpts and offered some remarks.

قضية التمديد، لم تكن أساساً مطروحة. وفي حوارنا مع القوى اللبنانية لم يكن هناك من يطرح التمديد، ولم يكن في تصورنا التمديد، والرئيس رفيق الحريري سألني هذا السؤال في إحدى المرات، وقلت له إنه لا يوجد تمديد ولم أسمع من أحد أنه يرغب بالتمديد في لبنان. هذا قبل أن يظهر القرار 1559، هذا الكلام في ربيع 2004 تقريباً. بدأت تظهر بوادر 1559 في شهر حزيران تقريباً، وبدأنا نسمع عن شيء يحضّر في مجلس الأمن، وفعلياً أغلب القوى الصديقة لنا في الغرب لم تكن تعلم بهذا الشيء. كانت خطة 1559 تعتبر أن سوريا ستطرح أحد المرشحين الواردة أسماؤهم على الساحة في ذلك الوقت، وأي مرشح منهم، بغض النظر عن أي مرشح سيكون، سيقال بأنه تدخل سوري. وكان هناك مرشح حتى الآن لم نعلن من هو، لبناني بديل، ستطرح سوريا مع الحلفاء اللبنانيين اسماً ما، فستبدأ نفس المعركة من أجل المرشح البديل، وستأتي المساومة بأن القرار 1559 مقابل منع تدخل سوريا في مرشحين لبنانيين. لم يكن 1559 له علاقة بالتمديد، وأساساً لم يكن وارداً في بالهم التمديد، بالنسبة لهم كانوا يعرفون بأن سوريا لا تريد التمديد، فكان وضع هذا القرار من أجل لعبة أخرى، وأي مرشح آخر، وكان هناك مرشح بديل، سيفترضون أن سوريا ستقف ضد هذا المرشح فسيكون 1559 هو الرد على سوريا.

السؤال لماذا واجهت سوريا العالم بالتمديد؟ لا توجد علاقة. عندما توضحت بوادر المعركة كان لبنان وسوريا بحاجة لشخص للمواجهة، وهو الرئيس لحود.
أي أن التمديد كان هجوماً مضاداً؟
ـ لا، التمديد حدث لأن الرئيس لحود بالأساس جُرّب وطنياً في مراحل، أعتقد أنه الآن بدأ يتحدث عنها في مذكراته وفي مقابلاته، ولكنهم جربوا مع الرئيس لحود منذ استلم الرئاسة، أن يدخلوا في قضايا معينة، هي إبعاد لبنان عن سوريا، وإبعاد الرئيس لحود عن المقاومة، فرفض. إذاً فالرئيس لحود هو إنسان مجرَّب وطنياً. فكان لا بد من الدخول في معركة، والتمديد كان هو الرد.
أخطاء اللبنانيين

al-Asad: The issue of the extension was never raised.  And in our dialogue with the Lebanese powers there wasn’t anyone who suggested the extension.  And an extension in Lebanon was not in our imagination.  Rafiq Hariri asked me this question one time and I told him that there is no extension and I didn’t hear from anyone who wants an extension in Lebanon.  This is before the appearance of Resolution 1559, this conversation was approximately in Spring 2004.  Signs of 1559 began to appear in June approximately and we began to hear about something being prepared in the Security Council.  Actually, most of our friendly powers in the West did not know this.  The plan of 1559 thought that Syria would put forward one of the conceivable candidates in the field at that time.  And any candidate from among them, overlooking whoever candidate may be, it would be said that it was Syrian interference.  There was a candidate, until now we have not announced who he is, a Lebanese alternative.  Syria would announce with its Lebanese allies a name, then would begin the same fight for the sake of the alternative candidate.  The bargaining would come as Resolution 1559 in exchange for preventing Syrian interference in the Lebanese candidates.  Resolution 1559 did not have a relation to the extension.  Basically, the extension was not conceivable in their minds.  For their part they knew that Syria did not want the extension so the situation of this resolution was for a different game, and any other candidate, and there was an alternative candidate, they would suppose that Syria would stand against this candidate and 1559 would be the response to Syria.

al-Asad: The question why did Syria face the world with the extension?  There is no relation.  When the signs of the fight clarified Lebanon and Syria were in need of someone for the confrontation and  it was President Lahoud. 

as-Safir: Meaning the extension was a counterattack? 

al-Asad: No, the extension happened because President Lahoud basically was experienced nationally in [different] levels.  I believe that now he has begun to talk about it in his memoirs and interviews, but they tried with President Lahoud since he received the Presidency to interfere in specific issues and were distancing Lebanon from Syria and distancing President Lahoud from the resistance so he refused.  So President Lahoud is an nationally experienced person, thus it was not necessary to enter in the fight and the extension was the response.

Thus al-Asad disconnects Resolution 1559 from the issue of Lahoud’s extension.  Resolution 1559 was a gambit on the part of the West and anti-Syria Lebanese politicians to ensure that an anti-Syrian candidate (al-Asad never names who the “alternative” was) acceded to the Presidency.  Elsewhere in the interview, as is well known by now, al-Asad mentions that 1559 was also part of an Anglo-French rapprochement and related to the fallout over Total losing a bid for a natural gas contract in Syria.  Unsurprisingly there is no mention of the fact that the Lahoud extension was enacted by Lebanese MPs under Syrian threats from Jamil Sayyed and Rustom Ghazaleh (see Chapter 5 of Nick Blanford’s Killing Mr. Lebanon for an excellent account of this in English).  Moreover, he neglects the context in which the resolution was being drafted.  The question of the extension was very much being debated in August 2004 as Resolution 1559 was being drafted.  By that point in time it was a foregone conclusion that Syria did not want anyone other than Lahoud.  In fact, despite al-Asad’s assertions to the contrary, it was widely suspected in spring 2004 that Syria favored either an extension or renewal of Lahoud’s term over the election of any other Presidential candidate, pro-Syrian or otherwise.  At the time, al-Asad’s relations with Washington were continuing to deteriorate and he had genuine fears that Syria could be the Bush administration’s next target.  Thus ensuring that a strong and reliable pro-Syrian stalwart such as Lahoud would remain at the helm in Lebanon was imperative and worth the costly international backlash it entailed.

ندخل إلى الموضوع اللبناني. عملياً منذ عام 1975-1976، تم تفويض سوريا بالشأن اللبناني وتولت مسؤولية الوضع في لبنان، منذ عام 1976 حتى عام 2005. هل قمتم بإعادة نظر نقدية لهذه التجربة؟ لأن الظروف التي رافقت خروج سوريا كانت مانعة لأي حوار جدي حول كيف جرى ما جرى ولماذا جرى ما جرى ومن المسؤول عما جرى؟ هل نستطيع اليوم إعادة فتح لكل تلك الملفات لكل تلك التجربة في وحي ما استفدتموه منها كتجربة غنية جداً ومؤلمة جداً بنتائجها؟ هل نستطيع الدخول إلى الملف كاملاً.

ـ لا شك، أية تجربة يجب أن تحدد أهدافها أولاً كي تقيّمها، لا يمكنك تقييمها دون أن تحدد ما هي الأهداف. لكن حتى لو تحققت الأهداف، هناك دائماً خلال الممارسة للوصول لهذه الأهداف إيجابيات وسلبيات. التجربة السورية كان لها أهداف واضحة: حماية لبنان من التفتيت، توحيده وعودة الاستقرار إليه، حتى التسعين نجحت التجربة وعندما خرجت سوريا من لبنان كان موحداً، ففي هذا المجال نجحت سوريا. حصل التحرير عام 2000، لسوريا دور أساسي في هذا الموضوع، إذن تحققت أهداف التحرير والتوحيد. لكن عندما أعلنتُ أنا الخروج من لبنان في آذار عام 2005، قلت إنه حصلت أخطاء، كنت واضحاً في هذا الكلام، طبعاً حصل تقييم في سوريا، والحقيقة التقييم بدأ قبل تغيّر الظروف، عندما كان هناك سؤال في سوريا لدى الكثير من السوريين الذين كانوا على احتكاك مع اللبنانيين ويسمعون الانتقادات التي تحصل تجاه سوريا، فكان السؤال دائماً لماذا نبقى في لبنان؟ أو إلى متى نبقى؟ بعد الخروج وما حصل بالنسبة للعلاقات السورية اللبنانية كان هناك نقد وتحليل بهذا الاتجاه ولكن الأخطاء التي نتكلم عنها هي أخطاء مرتبطة بأشخاص وليس بالسياسات. أي طالما تحققت الأهداف في وحدة لبنان وتحريره، فالسياسات كجوهر وكمبدأ صحيحة. أما الخطأ فكان في التعاطي مع الوضع الداخلي اللبناني، وهنا توجد تفاصيل كثيرة.

as-Safir: We’ll get into the Lebanese subject.  Practically, since 1975-1976 Syria was entrusted with regard to Lebanon and it assumed responsibility of the situation in Lebanon from 1976 until 2005.  Did you carry out a critical review of this experience?  Because the circumstances that accompanied the Syrian exit were inhibiting any serious dialogue around how what happened happened and why what happened happened and who was responsible for what happened?  Can we today reopen all these issues and that whole experience in revealing what you benefited from it as a very rich experience and very painful experience?  Can we get into the issue completely?

al-Asad: There is no doubt, any experience must specify its aims first so that it can be evaluated.  You cannot evaluate it without specifying what were its aims.  But until now, even if you achieved the goals there is goals in the process of arriving at these aims positives and negatives.  The Syrian experience had clear aims: protecting Lebanon from crumbling and uniting and returning stability to it.  Until ‘90 the experience succeeded and when Syria left Lebanon it was united.  So in this area Syria succeeded.  The liberation happened in 2000, Syria had an essential role in this matter, so we achieved the aims of liberation and unity.  But when I had announced that we were leaving Lebanon in March 2005 I said that mistakes occurred.  I was clear in his speech.  Naturally an evaluation was completed in Syria and in fact the evaluation began before the change of circumstances,  when there was a questioning in Syria for many of the Syrians who were in contact with the Lebanese and listening to the criticisms that which were directed toward Syria.  So there always was a question, why do we stay in Lebanon?  Or until when do we stay?  After the exit and what happened with regards to the Syrian-Lebanese relations there was criticism and analysis in this direction, but the mistakes that we talk about are mistakes tied to people and not to policies.  Meaning as long as we achieved our aims in unifying Lebanon and liberating it, then the policies in essence and in principal were correct.  But the mistake, it was in dealing with the internal Lebanese situation and here are many details.

While it is true that Syria did not want to see Lebanon partitioned, it also wanted to ensure that the revisionists led by Kamal Junblatt did not manage to establish a radical Lebanese state that could embroil Syria in a direct confrontation with Israel.  Moreover, Syria sought to marginalize the PLO and dominate the Palestinian cause itself.  Finally, if the Syrian intervention brought a speedy resolution to the conflict, as Hafiz had hoped for, it would establish Syria as the vanguard of the Arab world.

Also, the notion that one of the aims of the Syrian intervention was liberation of Lebanon is odd, considering the Syrian intervention began in January and by late Spring had grew to an all out occupation.  The Israelis did not launch Operation Litani until March 1978.

More striking than his selective reading of history is al-Asad’s discussion of mistakes.  He unambiguously states that there was nothing wrong with the Syrian policy towards Lebanon between 1976-2005, but rather only isolated mistakes committed by particular individuals.

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